Twilight: The Nature of Good and Evil

Twilight: The Nature of Good and Evil
Rev. Fred L Hammond
A sermon given at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

“One should see the world, and see himself as a scale with an equal balance of good and evil. When he does one good deed the scale is tipped to the good – he and the world is saved. When he does one evil deed the scale is tipped to the bad – he and the world is destroyed.” Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon

 

Every few years an event happens that becomes a major pop culture phenomenon.  In the music world we had Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles.   I remember watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and seeing the audience practically leaping onto the stage or fainting from trying.  In the late 1970’s we had the movie Star Wars.  I saw this movie some 10 times in the movie theaters and that was nowhere near the number my friends saw the movie.  I didn’t want to be a fanatic and there were only so many hours I wanted to spend waiting in line for a movie I had already seen.  And wait in line I did.

Pop Culture tends to reflect something of the prevailing mood of the culture.  There is something in the personality of the singer, or the movie that beckons the audience to want more.  It meets some basic need in the audience.

In the late 1970’s, America was still reeling from the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War and President Nixon’s resignation from office.  Star Wars with its supernatural “Trust the Force, Luke,” where good always triumphs, its futuristic special effects, and its military action of blowing up the very obvious bad guys resonated with America’s need to lick its wounds of the previous several years.

Stephanie Meyer’s book, The Twilight Saga; four books already out and a fifth to be released in the near future appear to be one of these pop culture phenomenons. The movie of the same name was just recently released.  Teens across the country waited hours to get tickets to the premiere midnight showing. And in full disclosure, I have now seen the movie twice and have read all four of the books in the saga. The first book I have already read three times in preparation for this sermon.   I happen to love vampire genre books and movies and Stephanie Meyers tells the story well.

For me the notion of having to live a secret life resonates with my years of living in the closet as a gay man.  Wanting to come out and tell the world, yet recognizing the possible dire consequences in doing so.  And while I could use the text of these books to bring to light what living a double life does to closeted gay men and women, that concept was not what drew me in to the storyline of these novels.

Instead what drew me was this notion of good and evil.  Is what we call evil, truly evil or is it only in the eyes of the beholder?  Could individuals who are on opposite poles of each other in viewpoints embrace as brothers and sisters?  Could a group that society calls evil rise above evil and be seen as good by society?  Could we honor the decision of another even if it goes against what we believe to truly be in the best interest of all?  And when the consequence of that decision finally plays out to its conclusion, can we embrace it as being good.

These are the questions being discussed in the course of the story by Stephanie Meyer.  And it reflects the current of what is happening in our polarized society of blue and red states, fundamentalist and liberal faiths, gay and straight people.  As I read these novels I found myself being very hopeful for our young people’s destinies because if these novels resonate with them, then they are considering very deep issues on some level in their lives.  Of course it is possible to read these novels as simply a modern day Romeo and Juliet romance and Ms. Meyer does not fail to point out the similarities.  There are further references to the romance in Wuthering Heights and that comparison also is made clear.

But even with the appeal of forbidden love for young adult readers, the saga resonates on a much deeper level of a belief in a singular world suddenly revealing itself as pluralistic with humans, vampires, and werewolves.  How does a person navigate such a world and is it possible to find a bridge across the polarization that exists between these groups?

A brief synopsis of the Twilight Saga.   This is the story of a 17 year old, Bella Swan, who moves to a small northwest community.  She is intrigued by a family who attends the school, most particularly with Edward Cullen, who seems dark and moody.  The family keeps to themselves.  The family is kept at a distance from the Quileute Indian reservation where another teen, Jacob Black, expresses his infatuation with Bella.

Edward is both repulsed and attracted to Bella.  This attraction causes him grave concerns because as we discover, Edward and his family are vampires.   They have sworn off human blood and only hunt animals for their blood source.  Edward has the rare gift of being able to read minds but for some reason is unable to read Bella’s.  This adds to his attraction to Bella, an attraction that he finds to be dangerous.

The Quileute Indians, after being convinced, that the Cullen family is not like other vampires, sets up a treaty with the family.  The Quileutes are shape shifters and their ability to become werewolves occurs when vampires are in the vicinity.  The werewolves are there to protect the people of the tribe.   The tenuous treaty states that if the Cullen family remains on their lands and do not seek to harm humans, then their secret of being vampires will remain safe.  But the werewolves and the Vampires are bitter enemies; each seeing the other as an evil threat to their way of life.

Edward Cullen loathes his existence as a vampire.  Jacob Black loathes his existence as a werewolf.  And Bella Swan is caught in between these two worlds.

She is growing ever more in love with Edward Cullen even though in an instant he could lose control of his self restraint and take her life for the blood that pulses within her.   At one point, Edward Cullen states after being questioned on his super human speed and strength in stopping a van from crashing into Bella, “What if I’m not a superhero? What if I’m the bad guy?”

After Bella learns the truth of Edward Cullen being a vampire, he tries to tell her how dangerous it is for him to be around her.  He states, “ ‘I’m the world’s best predator, aren’t I?  Everything about me invites you in—my voice, my face, even my smell.  As if I need any of that!’     ‘As if you could out run me’ … As if you could fight me off’ ”

He compares being driven to drink human blood as an addict driven to shoot up heroin.   “To me, it was like you were some kind of demon, summoned straight from my own personal hell to ruin me.  The fragrance coming off your skin… I thought it would make me deranged that first day.  In that one hour, I thought of a hundred different ways to lure you from the room with me, to get you alone. And I fought them each back, thinking of my family, what I could do to them.  I had to run out, to get away before I could speak the words that would make you follow me…”

Somehow Edward resists the evil intent and in resisting finds the strength to fall in love with Bella.  “ ‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb…’ he murmured.  … “What a stupid lamb,’ [Bella] sighed.  ‘What a sick, masochistic lion.’ ” Edward answered.

The nature of good and evil has been debated since time immemorial.  In recent years, especially in fundamentalist Christian circles there is a resurgence of the belief that there is a war in the cosmos being waged between the forces of good a.k.a. God, Jesus, and the angelic hosts and the forces of evil a.k.a. Satan and his demonic minions.   This is a dualistic viewpoint.

Edward Cullen sees himself in this light.  He is a monster that should be avoided at all costs he tells Bella. This cosmological concept of Good and Evil states that Satan and his dominions seek to steal the souls of all humans.  Edward believes that his soul has already been lost when he became one of the undead.  Once a soul is lost, this theology states it is now in full control of the forces of evil to tempt the elect.

The difference between Edward Cullen and the cosmological view of good and evil is this; for Edward he has internalized the war to be waged within himself versus the view of the war being waged outside of ourselves with us as the victims.  This theology states salvation from this war can only come from external intervention. Only by the grace of God could humans be saved from the onslaught of this spiritual war between good and evil.

Jacob Black, the Quiluete Indian also shape-shifter werewolf also falls into this dualistic view of good and evil.  While he loathes what he has become, he sees himself on the side of absolute good.  His people are the protectors.  Vampires are evil and are to be destroyed.  He is skeptical of the Cullen family being able to forever hold on to their side of the treaty.  And when they break it, he and his wolf pack will be there to destroy them.

There is, however, a problem with this scenario of the Wolves being the absolute good guys.   Wolves operate as a pack with an Alpha dog to lead them.  The alpha cannot be questioned.  The alpha must be obeyed.  When Jacob Black is in his werewolf form, he looses his ability to have free will, to choosing his destiny.  The only way he can claim his destiny in wolf form is to challenge the Alpha’s authority which could have dire consequences.  Therefore when he and his family have phased into being wolves, they operate as a pack.  They are in sync with each other’s thoughts and act as one unit.   All their vulnerabilities, all their secrets become known to the other wolves.  The pack will follow the alpha dog.  Whether right or wrong; the alpha dog will always be declared to be right and good.

History has told us that when we are in a hierarchical setting like the military but not exclusively military, when ordered to do so we will commit evil acts.  We saw this in Nazi Germany and we saw this in Abu Ghraib, Iraq. The only counter to this is the ability to question and if that has been taken away then the safe guard is gone.

So here in this story we have Werewolves whose core intentions are good but they might do bad things and Vampires whose core intentions are evil but they might do good things.  Stephanie Meyer in her telling of this tale turns the dualistic theology of good and evil on its head.  And Bella Swan becomes the bridge between these two poles.
Her insistence in maintaining a relationship with both Edward Cullen and Jacob Black, despite their bitter opposition begins to soften their stances against the other.   She is determined to see the good in each of them and convey that to the other.
Bella Swan in her approach to Edward Cullen, the Vampire; and Jacob Black, the Werewolf is exploring another perspective on the nature of good and evil.
When Bella tells Edward that she has determined he is a vampire, she says: 
“ ‘I did some research on the internet.’ ‘And did that convince you?’  His voice sounded barely interested.  But his hands were clamped hard onto the steering wheel. ‘No. Nothing fit.  Most of it was kind of silly. And then…’ I stopped. ‘What?’ ‘I decided it didn’t matter,’ I whispered.  ‘It didn’t matter?’  His tone made me look up—I had finally broken his carefully composed mask.  His face was incredulous, with just a hint of the anger I’d feared.   “No,’ I said softly.  ‘It doesn’t matter to me what you are.’  A hard, mocking edge entered his voice, “you don’t care if I’m a monster?  If I’m not human?’ “No.’”
Her response to Jacob is identical.  There had been a series of unexplained deaths in the nearby forests.  When Bella realizes that Jacob was a werewolf, she wrongly assumes that it was the werewolves doing the killings.  
“ ‘No, Jake, No.  It’s not that you’re a … wolf.  That’s fine,’ I promised him, and I knew as I said the words that I meant them.  I really didn’t care if he turned into a big wolf—he was still Jacob.  ‘If you could just find a way not to hurt people… that’s all that upsets me.  These are innocent people, Jake, people like Charlie, and I can’t just look the other way while you—’ ‘Is that all?  Really?’  He interrupted me, a smile breaking across his face.  … “You really, honestly don’t mind that I morph into a giant dog?’ …  ‘I’m not a killer, Bella.’  I studied his face, and it was clear that this was the truth.  Relief pulsed through me.”

Bella’s response to both is a humanist approach to good and evil.  A humanist approach to evil states that evil is not a force in the cosmos seeking to destroy or steal our souls but rather evil has a human cause to it.

Bella Swan has taken the humanist approach; it is not who you are, but rather what you do that creates evil or good. Jewish Theologian Maimonides from the 12th century stated there are three types of evil—one is natural and two are moral.

1) “Natural evils occur because we are made of matter, of flesh and bones, and we are subject to coming into being and passing away.  We die and make room for others of our species.
“2) Human beings inflict evil upon one another by tyrannical domination and wars.  These evils are more numerous than natural evils. This kind of evil afflicts many people in wars, yet they are not the majority of events if we consider the world as a whole.

“3) Individuals inflict evil upon themselves by eating, drinking and indulging themselves to excess. A bad regimen produces diseases of the body and soul.”
Maimonides offers the beginnings of a humanistic approach to good and evil by placing evil in the hands of humanity’s actions.  Humanists tend to go another step, and that is an optimism that everyone has within them an inherent worth and dignity.
This seems to be Bella Swan’s approach as well to her two self-identified monsters.  There is an inherent worth and dignity within them and if they are willing to put their mind to it, they can overcome their monster tendencies.  As the Twilight saga unfolds, we begin to see how these two natural enemies, the Cullen Vampires and Werewolves,  come to embrace over time as brothers and sisters.
How can humanity rise above its tendencies to commit evils?  If there is any clue in this novel, it would be with some strong self-discipline and the self-sacrifice of pre-conceptions of what motivates the other.   There is another story that also offers a clue.  It is the Cherokee tale of the Two Wolves.

“An elder Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life.  He said to them, ‘A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.
“One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
“The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.’

“The children thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’

“The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’ ”
Blessed Be.

[1] Evil and Christian Ethics By Gordon Graham New York, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

[3] website AAANativeArts.com.

All other quotes are from Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. 

 

 


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One Comment

  1. How do you or what base do you have to differentiate good from evil?

    [Interesting question. It is similar to my question in the sermon “Is what we call evil, truly evil or is it only in the eyes of the beholder?” A question I raised but did not answer.

    There are three answers that come to my mind as I read your question.

    1) Society determines what differentiates good from evil. Each society has its lists of taboos for that culture. What is evil in one country might not be considered evil in another. I will use American society as seen through the lens of time to give an example. There was a time in American society that good upright families owned slaves. The more slaves one owned the more prosperous and prestigious the family was considered to be. Today, we consider slavery to be an abhorrent evil.

    2) Another base for determining between good and evil is whether or not the actions are increasingly expansive and inclusive or contractive and exclusive. Two people pledge their love to each other. One partner, however, begins making demands on the other partner to not see other people, to only stay at home to care for children, to not have any activities that do not include the partner. To enforce this the partner may result to emotional and physical abuse all in the name of loving this person. The actions are contractive and exclusive and therefore under this definition would be considered evil.

    3) Another base that comes to mind is whether or not suffering is eliminated or reduced. That which reduces suffering or eliminates would be good, that which increases or causes suffering would be evil. This base for determining the difference between good and evil is murkier because there are greys here. The action could both reduce suffering and increase suffering at the same time. The invention of the automobile. It reduces the suffering of people all over the world. People can travel farther, it increases their mobility for work, where they vacation, etc. A good thing, yes? Yet, it also increases suffering. The emissions spewed out into the atmosphere have made asthma a leading childhood disease in America and abroad, not to mention other respiratory illnesses. These emissions have contributed to acid rain threatening hundreds and hundreds of species of plants and animals to extinction. So determining good and evil based on this differentiation alone is a bit trickier because one has to then weigh what causes the least evil versus causing the most good. And who has the authority to make this determination? The car manufacturer? The slave owner? The abusive partner? The leader of a country?

    Clear as mud, yes? Blessings, Fred


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